Modernism and the Curse of Talent: The Case of de Kooning

Rochelle Gurstein in The New Republic:

106354685For a moment, the crowd that was constantly amassing around the painting singled out by the organizers of the MOMA’s Willem de Kooning retrospective as the masterpiece of his early period—Excavation (1950)—had dispersed. So my husband and I positioned ourselves in front of it to take advantage of what we knew was a rare moment of unobstructed viewing. Excavation is strategically located to be the climactic experience in the room devoted to de Kooning’s “breakthrough” black-on-white enamel and oil paintings, which took letters from the alphabet as their starting point but through acts of concentrated painterly energy became something else—organic shapes, anthropomorphized figures, ambiguous forms, increasingly vibrant, rhythmical, and abstract, which I found thrilling to look at. Excavation, more pale yellowish-white than the black of the other paintings in the room, was de Kooning’s largest work yet—6’9” by 8’4”—and my husband pointed out that he no doubt felt compelled to work on this larger scale, given that it was the moment of the mural-scale paintings of Jackson Pollock et al. Nevertheless, it was still an “easel” painting—the distinction was Clement Greenberg’s—and if de Kooning was after the more experimental overall look and feel of a Pollock, my husband thought this painting fell short. He appreciated the psychic battle apparent in all the strenuous marks of doing and undoing that de Kooning was trying to orchestrate into a unity during the many months he worked on the painting, but the more time we spent looking, the more my husband questioned whether de Kooning’s “talent” was getting in his way: the tasteful dabs of bright color, no matter how many subversive techniques he invented in their application; his masterful line and contour, no matter how violently he worked to dislodge the figure from its own pictorial space; and most telling, his unconscious return to the center of the painting with an “x” to mark the spot, even as he tried to allow for more spontaneous composition. Such was de Kooning’s “talent” that no matter how radically he tried to break with line-bounding shapes, in Excavation, it feels like there is always a ghost of the figure about to reappear.

More here.

Illuminating the history of medicine

From Salon:


Sir Henry Solomon Wellcome died in 1936, but his curiosity about human understandings of “the preservation of health and life” — carried forward in the 21st century by the Wellcome Trust — is supremely infectious. Open “The Art of Medicine: Over 2,000 Years of Images and Imagination” (University of Chicago Press, out now), which spotlights works from London’s Wellcome Collection, and you’ll find illuminations from late medieval medical manuals; 18th-century anatomical waxworks with removable organs; leaves from hand-colored plant and herb guides; early-20th-century lithographs advertising gout remedies; astonishing close-ups of implanting human embryos; and much, much more. The collection is so wide-ranging and diverse as to defy a pithy explanation — but taken as a whole, it’s transfixing. Emma Shackleton, one of the book’s co-authors, answered a few of my questions over email; the accompanying slide show offers a whirlwind tour of the past few hundred years of medical imagery.

View the slide show

More here.

the origins of sex


Philip Larkin facetiously claimed that “Sexual intercourse began/ In nineteen-sixty-three … Between the end of the Chatterley ban/ And The Beatles’ first LP”. If perchance you thought that Larkin was being serious, Faramerz Dabhoiwala will put you right. The Oxford historian sets out to show that sex began in the 18th century – or, to be fair, that’s when people started thinking and talking about it in a recognisably modern way. Today we believe that women are less lustful than men – it was vice versa before 1800. Today we believe that everyone is entitled to be treated the same regardless of race or social class; certainly not so then. Today sex is a private matter, and what they get up to next door is nobody’s business but their own. However, if you suspected that your 17th-century neighbour was committing adultery, you could send her off to the church courts. There she might (at least theoretically) even lose her life just on the strength of your word. Is our modern obsession with the sex lives of celebrities some crude and vulgar 20th-century phenomenon? No, it actually kicked off in the 1660s.

more from Lucy Worsley at the FT here.

50 years cuckoo


“Cuckoo’s Nest.” Sure, everyone’s heard of it. But is it worth reading? Before Jack Nicholson won his first Oscar, before there was a bus full of merry pranksters, there was a writing student with a swing-shift job in a mental ward. It’s the Ken Kesey of that era who stares from the jacket flap of the 50th anniversary edition of his debut novel, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”: His curly hair is cropped short, he wears a cotton work shirt and his gaze is steady. To someone of my generation — X-ish — he’s almost unrecognizable. The Kesey I knew, peripherally, was a spaced-out hippie spouting psychedelic lingo long past its expiration date. He was a former ’60s icon hauled into mainstream culture from time to time, more often than not playing the buffoon. Kesey’s novel was a rapid bestseller, but his fame came from what he did after: name a bus Further, paint it outrageous colors, fill it with counterculture friends he called the Merry Pranksters and take it on the road.

more from Carolyn Kellogg at the LA Times here.

a much more interesting figure


Judt’s story is in many ways very familiar: His forebears were Eastern European Jews who ended up in Britain, where they assimilated into English life. He was not brought up in a religious home — his father was a Marxist — but consciousness of the Holocaust was central to his identity; he was named after a cousin who died at Auschwitz. He attended Cambridge and began a career as a Marxist historian in the mold of his idols Eric Hobsbawm and E. P. Thompson, writing initially on obscure topics like French socialism in Provence. Intellectually, he was as French as he was English, participating in the événements of 1968 and spending a year at the École Normale Supérieure, where he befriended Marxist luminaries like the historians Annie Kriegel and Boris Souvarine. Whatever Judt’s initial ideological commitments, he later concerned himself with a stark and important question: “how so many smart people could have told themselves such stories with all the terrible consequences that ensued.” The story was that of Communism, which perpetrated “the intellectual sin of the century: passing judgment on the fate of others in the name of their future as you see it, . . . concerning which you claim exclusive and perfect information.” Looking back at the history of left-wing figures from the 1930s like the French socialist Léon Blum, he saw their central failing as the lack of “any appreciation of the possibility of evil as a constraining, much less a dominating, element in public affairs.” This was to become the theme of his 1992 book “Past Imperfect,” which chronicled French intellectuals like Jean-Paul Sartre who publicly supported Stalinism while remaining willfully blind to its horrors.

more from Francis Fukuyama at the NY Times here.

The New World of William Carlos Williams

Adam Kirsch in the New York Review of Books:

ScreenHunter_08 Feb. 03 19.47Today it would be hard to find a reader of poetry who would not acknowledge William Carlos Williams as one of the major American modernists, a peer of Wallace Stevens and Marianne Moore and Ezra Pound. His place in anthologies and on college reading lists is secure. Possibly no modern American poem is more widely known than Williams’s “The Red Wheelbarrow,” that tiny epiphany:

so much depends

a red wheel

glazed with rain

beside the white

This is not Williams’s best or most important poem, but it does illustrate some crucial aspects of his art. In his Autobiography (1951), Williams explains that his goal as a writer is to capture the “immediacy” of experience: “It is an identifiable thing, and its characteristic, its chief character is that it is sure, all of a piece and, as I have said, instant and perfect: it comes, it is there, and it vanishes. But I have seen it, clearly. I have seen it.” This is just what he does with the wheelbarrow, the rainwater, and the chickens: trivial in themselves, their sheer uninsistent presence strikes the reader as somehow disclosing the very essence of being. Williams himself, not given to making high claims for his own work, considered this poem “quite perfect”: “the sight impressed me as about the most important, the most integral that it had ever been my pleasure to gaze upon.”

What makes the poem work perfectly is, first, the artistry behind Williams’s apparent artlessness. “The Red Wheelbarrow,” like a number of Williams’s poems (but far from all), could easily be rewritten as prose. Yet the way Williams lays out the words on the page is central to the poem’s meaning.

More here.

The case for piracy

J. D. Hildebrand in Software Development Times:

Jdhildebrand_587026132SOPA and PIPA are dead. This doesn't mean that pirating software, music, games, and movies online is legal, but that the ability of copyright holders and government agencies to shut down the piracy supply chain remains limited.

The whole Internet community banded together to defeat SOPA and PIPA. We all felt good about protecting free speech in the face of the proposed measures. And it appears that we have won.

So we are left with the status quo. Piracy is still illegal, but it's still common. Copyright holders will continue their search for legal tools to shut down the pipeline. Pirates will continue to use ingenious methods to get their hands on copyrighted works.

What if we are looking at this the wrong way. What if, instead of expending their time and energy stopping piracy, copyright holders accepted the pirates as an inevitable, even helpful, part of the creative ecosystem?

A number of researchers, writers, and even copyright holders are starting to come around to this point of view. In increasing numbers, people are sharing their opinion that piracy is a good thing.

How could this be?

More here.

Steven Colbert v. the Supreme Court

Dahlia Lithwick in Slate:

ScreenHunter_07 Feb. 03 18.54The line between entertainment and the court blurred even further late last month when Colbert had former Justice John Paul Stevens on his show to discuss his dissent in Citizens United. When a 91-year-old former justice is patiently explaining to a comedian that corporations are not people, it’s clear that everything about the majority opinion has been reduced to a punch line.

Colbert took the mainstream by storm in interview after interview that schooled Americans about the insanity of Citizens United and garnered blowback from NBC White House correspondent Chuck Todd, who complained that Colbert is “making a mockery of the system” and questioned whether the real agenda was to “educate the public about the dangers of money and politics … or simply to marginalize the Republican Party?” Then came the un-ironic defenses of the irony of Colbert and the obligatory navel-gazing about whether Colbert is in fact effecting real change or in peril of succumbing to “irony fatigue.”

At one level, this is all just comedy, and it’s hard to measure whether Colbert’s sustained attacks on the court’s campaign finance decisions are having any real impact, beyond making us laugh. On the other hand, when the New York Times declares that Colbert’s project is deadly serious, and it’s just the rest of politics that’s preposterous, something more than just theater is happening.

More here.

Solving the Scenario: Asad Raza, Art Producer

Eric J. Henderson in the Huffington Post:

2012-01-29-asad2smallOne way in which Hans Ulrich Obrist describes the art producer is: the person who “solves the scenario” surrounding a given work. But there are no regular media such as rolling credits or names in a program that would start us on a trail to finding out what that means. In fact, the job of art producer defies perfect definition when it is done well.

This is a motivating thing to unravel, since we don't often consider the inner workings of art, preferring to think of it as genius falling from the clouds. But there is a world behind each piece, and I would like to consider one part of it in order to expand our view of what makes art.

Among other things, Asad is an art producer. I met him while working as a participant in Tino Sehgal's exhibition, “This Progress,” at the Guggenheim Museum. He interviewed me for the job in a meticulous process that screened hundreds of people over, I guess, hundreds of cups of coffee. Then I watched closely as he trolled the exhibition for three months, consulting with Sehgal on everything from traffic flow to the conversations between the participants and the public. After it was over, I discovered that the intensely organized operation was the result of over a year of planning, and I even caught a glimpse of a monstrous Excel spreadsheet used to manage things all the way down to visitor flow.

More here.

Harriet Tubman (1822-1913)

From PBS:

Tubm-har03Harriet Tubman is perhaps the most well-known of all the Underground Railroad's “conductors.” During a ten-year span she made 19 trips into the South and escorted over 300 slaves to freedom. And, as she once proudly pointed out to Frederick Douglass, in all of her journeys she “never lost a single passenger.” Tubman was born a slave in Maryland's Dorchester County around 1820. At age five or six, she began to work as a house servant. Seven years later she was sent to work in the fields. While she was still in her early teens, she suffered an injury that would follow her for the rest of her life. Always ready to stand up for someone else, Tubman blocked a doorway to protect another field hand from an angry overseer. The overseer picked up and threw a two-pound weight at the field hand. It fell short, striking Tubman on the head. She never fully recovered from the blow, which subjected her to spells in which she would fall into a deep sleep.

Around 1844 she married a free black named John Tubman and took his last name. (She was born Araminta Ross; she later changed her first name to Harriet, after her mother.) In 1849, in fear that she, along with the other slaves on the plantation, was to be sold, Tubman resolved to run away. She set out one night on foot. With some assistance from a friendly white woman, Tubman was on her way. She followed the North Star by night, making her way to Pennsylvania and soon after to Philadelphia, where she found work and saved her money. The following year she returned to Maryland and escorted her sister and her sister's two children to freedom. She made the dangerous trip back to the South soon after to rescue her brother and two other men. On her third return, she went after her husband, only to find he had taken another wife. Undeterred, she found other slaves seeking freedom and escorted them to the North. Tubman returned to the South again and again. She devised clever techniques that helped make her “forays” successful, including using the master's horse and buggy for the first leg of the journey; leaving on a Saturday night, since runaway notices couldn't be placed in newspapers until Monday morning; turning about and heading south if she encountered possible slave hunters; and carrying a drug to use on a baby if its crying might put the fugitives in danger. Tubman even carried a gun which she used to threaten the fugitives if they became too tired or decided to turn back, telling them, “You'll be free or die.”

More here. (Note: In honor of African American History Month, we will be linking to at least one related post throughout February. The 2012 theme is Black Women in American Culture and History).

The Last European Dictatorship


Until twenty years ago, Belarus was not a state but a backwater of other states: of medieval Kievan Russia, of early modern Litva (the Kingdom of Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania), and then of Russia. Only when Stalin grabbed half of Poland and then needed a pretext for another seat at the United Nations did the ravaged city of Minsk become a capital city of a fictional republic. Stalin in the 1930s and the Nazis between 1942 and 1944, as Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands (2010) so graphically showed, turned Belarus into a living hell, but by purging it of Poles and Jews, as well as any independently minded citizens, they left in the ruins an ethnically homogeneous citizenry. When Boris Yeltsin engineered the abolition of the USSR and the deposition of Mikhail Gorbachev, Belarus, an accomplice in the plot like Ukraine, became a recognised state. It lacks, however, many of a state’s attributes: it has no natural borders, such as mountains or rivers; and it differs from its neighbour Russia primarily in that it inhabits a different time zone – the 1970s. The Belarusian language, used by a small minority of the country’s peasantry and intellectuals, is more a collection of dialects in which Russian is seamlessly transposed into Polish or Ukrainian, with only a boldly phonetic spelling system in common. In religion, too, the country moves (east to west) from Orthodoxy to Catholicism via the Uniate church.

more from Donald Rayfield at Literary Review here.

Atomic Bread Baking at Home


Sliced white bread as we know it today is the product of early twentieth-century streamlined design. It is the Zephyr train of food. But, in the American imagination, industrial loaves are more typically associated with the late ’50s and early ’60s—the Beaver Cleaver days of Baby Boomer nostalgia, the Golden Age of Wonder Bread. This is not without justification: during the late ’50s and early ’60s, Americans ate a lot of it. Across race, class, and generational divides, Americans consumed an average of a pound and a half of white bread per person, every week. Indeed, until the late ’60s, Americans got from 25 to 30 percent of their daily calories from the stuff, more than from any other single item in their diet (and far more than any single item contributes to the American diet today—even high-fructose corn syrup). Only a few years earlier, however, as world war morphed into cold war, the future of industrial bread looked uncertain. On the cusp of the Wonder years, Americans still ate enormous quantities of bread, but, even so, government officials and baking-industry experts worried that bread would lose its central place on the American table. In a world of rising prosperity and exciting new processed foods, the Zephyr train of food looked a bit tarnished. And so, in 1952, hoping to offset possible declines in bread consumption, the U.S. Department of Agriculture teamed up with baking-industry scientists to launch the Manhattan Project of bread.

more from Aaron Bobrow-Strain at The Believer here.

hockney returns to Yorkshire


Hockney’s awakening to the artistic possibilities of the Yorkshire landscape in fact had an earlier and distinct origin – though one which yielded some very different stylistic responses. In the late 1990s, he chose to spend concentrated periods of time in Yorkshire in order to be with his friend Jonathan Silver, who was terminally ill. Driving backwards and forwards cross-country from Bridlington to Wetherby, Hockney began to paint Yorkshire, as Silver had long encouraged him to do. With flattened planes and bold colours these oil paintings make a powerful visual impact, combining elements of naturalistic representation with that same playful element of depicting travel and topography one finds in Hockney’s American road pictures. Some were indeed painted back at his studio in Los Angeles, and all are categorized as different in kind from his recent landscapes: these are painted from imagination and memory, rather than observation. In a way that the later landscape studies are not, these are about place rather than nature, and the viewer is transported into vivid, dreamlike Yorkshires, where all the roads are shades of mauve and the rolling furrows can be searing magenta. The naive view of “The Road across the Wolds” (1997) and the authentically unsettling vertigo of descending from “Garrowby Hill” (1998) delight in pattern and colour, yet they also take the viewer into a simulacrum of a real landscape.

more from Clare Griffiths at the TLS here.

Wislawa Szymborska, Nobel-Winning Polish Poet, Dies at 88

Raymond H. Anderson in the New York Times:

SZYMBORSKA-obit-popupWislawa Szymborska, a gentle and reclusive Polish poet who won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Literature, died on Wednesday in Krakow, Poland. She was 88.

The cause was lung cancer, said David A. Goldfarb, the curator of literature and humanities at the Polish Cultural Institute in New York, a diplomatic mission of the Polish Embassy.

Ms. Szymborska (pronounced vees-WAH-vah shim-BOR-ska) had a relatively small body of work when she received the Nobel, the fifth Polish or Polish-born writer to have done so since the prize was created in 1901. Only about 200 of her poems had been published in periodicals and thin volumes over a half-century, and her lifetime total was something less than 400.

The Nobel announcement surprised Ms. Szymborska, who had lived an intensely private life. “She was kind of paralyzed by it,” said Clare Cavanagh, who, with Stanislaw Baranczak, translated much of Ms. Szymborska’s work into English.

“Her friends called it the ‘Nobel tragedy,’ ” Dr. Cavanagh, a professor of literature at Northwestern University, said in an interview on Wednesday. “It was a few years before she wrote another poem.”

More here.

KILL THE CAPS LOCK, And four other modest proposals for improving the contemporary computer keyboard

Matthew J.X. Malady in Slate:

ScreenHunter_05 Feb. 02 18.232. One change that should have been made to the keyboard decades ago is the addition of a dedicated em-dash key. An em-dash is meant to indicate an abrupt change of thought within the context of a sentence. Writers of all stripes use them often—sometimes too often—but they can be a real pain in the carpal to type.

To make an em-dash using a Mac, you have to do this: First, press the option key. Next, while holding down “option,” press “shift.” Now, while keeping those other two buttons pressed, hit the hyphen key. It’s too much—three keys for one mark. On a PC, there’s a handy “shortcut.” Simply hold down “alt” and then type 0151 on the far right number pad. (Next challenge: safecracking.) Although some popular word processing programs will automatically create an em-dash when you type two consecutive hyphens, that’s no reason to prolong the mark’s banishment from the board.

(At least partially because there’s no dedicated em-dash button on the keyboard, people mess up this mark in many annoying ways. Some use two hyphens–like so. It’s not an attractive replacement. Other typists resort to a single hyphen as a stand-in for an em-dash-like so. That’s just confusing.)

More here. [I heartily endorse an em-dash key. I usually have to copy and paste it from somewhere.]

Spelunking for Genes

Debra Bradley Ruder in Harvard Medicine:

ScreenHunter_03 Feb. 02 16.19Russian archaeologists have been excavating Denisova Cave for three decades, but it wasn’t until recently that they unearthed a pea-sized pinky bone from a young girl who, they think, lived some 30,000 to 50,000 years ago. Remarkably, it contained enough genetic material to salvage and study.

That bone, along with an oversized adult molar, helped Reich and his colleagues at HMS and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany, identify a previously unknown hominin who was neither Neanderthal nor modern human. This “archaic” group, dubbed the Denisovans, after the cave, apparently inhabited a large swath of Asia and—like Neanderthals—mated with modern humans. Although both Neanderthals and Denisovans eventually died out, traces of their genes live on in some populations today.

These discoveries are adding pieces to the puzzle of how humans evolved and where and when prehistoric people roamed the Earth. The work also reinforces the notion that population mixing has been the rule, not the exception, throughout human history. For geneticists like Reich, however, the greatest promise of this research might be in learning whether the genes inherited from these ancient people help protect today’s humans from disease.

More here.